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May 09

DAVID BOWIE – “Let’s Dance”

FT + Popular144 comments • 7,302 views

#519, 9th April 1983

One of the odd things about Bowie is how panicky he seems to get when he’s in fashion. The image of him as a “pop chameleon” is surely at least partly cover for a flight-reflex that kicks in when one of his stylistic changes really takes off. In the mid 70s, tasting superstardom on the back of his deviant glam image, he sidestepped into black US pop, making Young Americans and baffling his fans with “plastic soul”. Close to a decade on, and again the fountainhead of art-pop influence, he made exactly the same move, borrowing sounds and musicians from black pop to make a record that’s an exercise in knowing glossiness.

But something unexpected happened. Let’s Dance was massive: its smooth post-disco gestures fitting a current mood in pop, a retreat from frippery towards self-conscious sophistication, from pose to poise. It was to be the last time he matched pop’s moment so completely.

For all that “Let’s Dance” is an odd record. For a song about dancefloor erotics it’s harsh and heavy and everything about it seems half-petrified, the music a succession of freeze-frames. Bowie’s voice has an ancient, lizardly glide: there’s something as much vampiric as romantic about his invitations to dance and sway. I’ve often reached on Popular for the (rather hackneyed) idea that a record is easy to admire but difficult to love. “Let’s Dance” seems to be trying for this effect quite intentionally: it’s an impressively cold-blooded piece of work.

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Comments

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  1. 126
    admin on 9 Jun 2009 #

    Gabrielle Drake in Coronation Street last night! (important admin announcement there)

  2. 127
    Billy Smart on 18 Jun 2009 #

    Really liked this when I was ten, still do now.

    Two things about it that I can belatedly contribute. Everybody comments on the glossiness of this, but the other side of this gloss is a sense of galvanised hardness. Not just the enormo-drums, but that castanettey thing which (IIRC) acompanies a shot of a scorpion in the video, the appearance of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the separated and thumpy bassline. Its not a record that’s asking you to love it. This effect is accentuated by the lyrics raising of the idea of seriousness and blues, I think. And the idea of moonlight supports this chiaroscuro separation and hardness.

    The other thing is that I much prefer this in the seven inch/radio edit. The full-length version just goes on – it never really starts to breathe and swing like Nile Rogers’ own extended songs.

  3. 128
    TomLane on 21 Jun 2009 #

    Another thing I remember. Didn’t this song debut in the Billboard Top 40 American charts in the mid-20’s. It caught me by surprise, but at that moment I knew the song would at least go Top 5.

  4. 129
    MikeMCSG on 16 Jul 2009 #

    I think the success of this one owes a lot to relief. Bowie had really tested his audience in 82 with the avant-garde Baal’s Hymn and Alabama Song and then that awful Bing Crosby thing so his fans were grateful for something conventional to buy.

    Unfortunately for them, after this his output dropped off the scale with Tonight, Never Let Me Down and the godawful Tin Machine. It’s difficult to think of any other artist whose quality has slipped so precipitously.

  5. 130
    rosie on 16 Jul 2009 #

    MikeMCSG @ 129: I’d hesitate to call Bowie’s version of the Alabama Song particularly avant-garde, even if it is my least favourite of the four versions at my fingertips (the others being by Ute Lemper, Robyn Archer and The Doors). It’s no more avant-garde than Lotte Lenya doing it in 1930, let alone any of the above.

  6. 131
    MikeMCSG on 27 Aug 2009 #

    Rosie 129 # It is a relatively straight version I agree but in a chart context the song itself is avant-garde material. None of the other versions you mention were hit singles.

  7. 132
    DV on 28 Dec 2009 #

    I may already have said this, but I recall that at the time people thought Let’s Dance was a sign that Bowie had run out of ideas and was just aping other people, while now it sounds weird and unlike anything else of the time.

  8. 133
    lonepilgrim on 20 Oct 2011 #

    There’s an exhaustive and exemplary analysis of this song (including a quote from the thread above) at the Bowie blog, here:
    http://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/lets-dance/

  9. 134
    swanstep on 20 Nov 2011 #

    Nile Rodgers talks us through Let’s Dance’s guitar part, alternatives that were discarded, and so on, here. Highly highly recommended.

    Video of the rest Rodgers’s seminar onstage in Manchester (Zion center) last week is available too. Yay youtube.

  10. 135
    Izzy on 22 Nov 2011 #

    I could listen to him talk and strum all day, that’s magnificent.

  11. 136
    swanstep on 19 Jun 2012 #

    Chic did Let’s Dance at Lovebox 2012 in London over the weekend. Good Times even better as one would expect. I’m *very* envious of anyone who got to go to this!

  12. 137
    Pearly Spencer on 21 Jun 2012 #

    I was there, Swanstep! It was brilliant. Nile Rodgers is quite the man.

  13. 138
    swanstep on 21 Jun 2012 #

    @137, Pearly S. Good for you, you lucky lucky person. Nile R. is the dude alright, and looking at his twitter feed and blog he’s evidently been very pleased with the shows and is generally himself having a ball (nobody has more friends than Nile). Obviously his health remains a little precarious so this summer’s tour shouldn’t be taken for granted by anyone.

  14. 139
    Ed on 22 Jun 2012 #

    A great man indeed. He single-handedly justified the existence of Twitter with this one:

    @nilerodgers: A journalist asked me, “How do you prepare for a CHIC show?” I said, “I call the girls and ask, ‘What are we wearing?'”

  15. 140
    Tomthygesen's Weblog on 3 Apr 2013 #

    […] Albummet får faktisk glimrende anmeldelser – se bare her i Rolling Stone. Se også denne korte og præcise retrospektive anmeldelse (fra 2009) i Freaky Trigger. […]

  16. 141
    enitharmon on 4 Apr 2013 #

    Er der noget råddent i staten Danmark?

  17. 142
    Jimmy the Swede on 6 Apr 2013 #

    Nice one, Rosie!

  18. 143
    punctum on 11 Jan 2014 #

    TPL on the album. Just couldn’t get into it, though I tried…I tried: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/david-bowie-lets-dance.html

  19. 144
    hectorthebat on 9 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 51
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 72
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 469
    Mojo (UK) – Top 30 David Bowie Songs (2003) 12
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 21
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 74
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 14
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 21

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